Thursday, February 19, 2009

It's One Way To Get Around

Last week I had a wonderful time posting on the "week in history" and I've decided to make it a regular feature. My writer thinks it's just so I can have more to talk about, but truly, I love to look back at what's happened and how much the world has changed. Or not.

This week marks the birthdays of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473), who spoke the revolutionary words "the center of the Earth is not the center of the universe", and of Nasir ad-Din at-Tusi (1201), Persian philosopher, scientist, mathematician and astronomer who survived the invasion of Genghis Khan's Mongols by convincing them to take him on as a scientific advisor. It's also the anniversary of the opening of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Thebes, Egypt (1923), the publication of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the launch of the Russian Space Station Mir (1986), and the first United States manned space mission, piloted by John Glenn in 1962. Quite a week.

Considering the humbling scientific accomplishments of this week in history, it might surprise you to discover I want to talk about bicycles. But there's a reason for this ~ the draisine was patented this week in 1818 by Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbrun. The draisine was the forerunner of the modern bicycle, and the bicycle has been on my mind today, because my writer proudly forwarded the picture of her niece taking her first ride without training wheels. Her bicycle is adorable, with a pink frame, the requisite streamers on the handles, and white (although not for long) wheels.

Now, as you know I've been around for a while, and I can remember when the bicycle was, well, edgy, to use modern terminology. It went through a number of recreations from 1818 until the 1890s, when the "safety bicycle" with its non-teeth-jarring pneumatic tires, cushioned seat, chain drive, adjustable handlebars and coaster brakes made it appealing to a wide audience. A hundred and ten years ago it forced the introduction of clothing appropriate to the sport (and considerably liberated otherwise corseted and petticoated women), plus provided a method of transportation for the middle class that was much less expensive and troublesome than the horse and carriage. It also raised the ire of preachers who thought the new tandem bicycles encouraged a shockingly unchaperoned state among young people, of merchants who anticipated a bankrupting loss of hat sales due to the impossibility of wearing same while pedaling at breakneck speeds of ten or so miles per hour, and of physicians who thought bicycle riding would arouse distressingly amorous feelings among their female clients. (I don't even want to touch that one).

The fears eventually passed, of course, along with the fad. The bicycle became a childhood toy on one hand and a sleek sport vehicle on the other. Little girls like my writer would grow from pink and white bikes to nifty ten-speeds, which took so much concentration my writer once accidentally pedaled into an open manhole, resulting in an accident which makes her feel much safer in a sedan. But she still fondly remembers the freedom (at lesser speeds) of her bicycling days.

For more information on today's birthdays and events, check out Today In Science , and for a wonderful source on bicycles and other fads, read Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies and Manias, by Charles Panati (HarperPerrenial 1991).

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